Authors: Rose J. Allister
She flinched when Dillon opened his mouth to reply, but two rangers walked up and interrupted the conversation. They took Aimee aside to ask all sorts of questions about her night lost on the mountain and urged her to let them call medics to check her vitals and take her to a hospital if need be. Hypothermia was nothing to mess with, they warned.
Aimee tried to nod and appear as though she was listening when she was busy keeping a close watch on the men staring each other down nearby. There were things on this mountain that were even less wise to mess with than frostbite.
“You’re probably dehydrated, too,” a narrow-faced ranger, whose hat appeared just a little too large, said to her. “Doesn’t take long, especially with the exertion of hiking in the mountains.”
“I drank rainwater,” she said, wishing they’d be quiet so she could hear what Dillon was saying to David. “There wasn’t exactly a shortage of it during the storm.”
His reply was drowned out by the question David, who stood with his arms folded, was posing to the two cowboys.
“So, exactly where and when did you meet up with my Aimee?”
She bolted forward with a nervous laugh. “Okay, I think we’re good here now.” Her eyes met David’s. “I don’t need a hospital. I promise to take a hot bath and drink plenty of fluids and never get lost again. Can we go?”
He gave her a curious look. “I suppose so. Been a long night for us both.”
“That it was,” Dillon said, and she did her best to smite him with a warning look.
His own fired right back as he put his hands on his hips. “So that’s it, then?”
What she wouldn’t have given to avoid the accusation in that fiery stare, but it would have looked dubious to keep her eyes averted from her supposed rescuer. Instead, she offered him a smile. “Of course that’s not it. I’m so very grateful to you both for helping me.” She stuck out the hand that felt oddly heavy with the diamond sitting on it. “Thank you for everything.”
Kyle watched, silent, as Dillon searched her expression with narrowed eyes. The longer the silence held, the harder her heart pounded. Her extended hand quivered slightly. Right when she knew his behavior would trigger David’s suspicion, he broke out in a wide grin that doubled her pulse. He stepped forward, blocking David’s line of sight to her. He took her hand, but instead of shaking it, brought it to his lips. “The honor and pleasure”—his sultry delivery of the latter word speared through her stomach—“was all mine.”
He barely brushed his mustache over the back of her hand, but it was enough to awaken every nerve ending along her arm. She yanked away with a glare, but he merely chuckled as he backed off.
She shrugged out of Kyle’s jacket and held it out to him. “Here. Thank you so much for lending it to me.”
David was staring at what she had on beneath. “Is that your sweater?”
“It’s mine,” Kyle said. “She was drenched and cold, so I let her wear it.” His eyes shifted to her. “You can keep it. And the jacket. You need ’em more than I do.”
David tensed beside her. “That’s generous. You must be frozen yourself, out here in nothing but a thin tank top.”
A bare hint of smile slid up the unscarred side of Kyle’s face as he flexed strong arms across his chest. “I’m used to the mountain air. And I run hotter than most.”
She saw David’s nostrils flare briefly as he and Kyle shared a silent moment, but then David gave a curt nod. “Then we’d better get going. Darling.”
Her head whipped around to his. He’d never used any term of endearment with her before, not even in private.
She turned to the two cowboys that she was suddenly reluctant to leave. This parting seemed so abrupt, so final. Words would come only after she cleared her throat. “Thank you both again.”
Dillon folded his arms in a pose that mirrored Kyle’s, but he remained silent. So many other things hung between them unsaid. She realized that they had no way of contacting one another again and no way of offering that information without David wondering what the hell she was doing.
“Good-bye,” she whispered after a moment, and she let David usher her to his car and tuck her inside.
Kyle and Dillon stood without moving for as long as she could glimpse them through the side view mirror. Then they were gone.
Late afternoon blossomed with sunshine, and Aimee basked in the warmth pouring down through whispering pine trees even as she panted with exertion. The heat prickled sweat under her white wool trench coat, but she left it in place as she looked around. The hillside around the cave looked so different bathed in dappled rays of light, and she took in the beauty of vibrant greens and sharp browns in the forest with a heavy sigh on her lips.
Even more ridiculous than finding herself in this same place again was the attire she wore while trudging over the hilly terrain. A flared, knee-length dress and the rubber galoshes she kept in her car for emergencies were hardly fitting for hiking wear. In her defense, Shay Falls was the last place she’d planned to head after finishing her weekly Sunday visit to her mother and extracting herself from the male nursing assistant who’d been unusually chatty. But there she was.
Her Sunday habit never wavered from routine. There was laundry, sprucing up in a Sunday dress to spend two hours at the nursing home, then a trip to the supermarket to pick up groceries for her weekly bulk cooking spree. But today had veered from the norm right from the offset. After the drive back down the mountain, David had dropped her at her place just in time to shower and dress before going to see her mother. He had offered to stay and look after her, but Aimee wanted time alone. So much had happened since they’d hiked up to the Shay Falls overlook, so much that she needed to process before she could get a grip on her life again. She had whispered some of it—the less unbelievable parts, at least—to her mother. Even though she knew the woman could no longer understand what she said to her, it gave her a small bit of comfort to say the words while she held her mother’s frail hand.
Now she stood at the mouth of the cave where things had taken a wild turn the night before, wondering why she’d come back. Her car had pointed itself toward the mountain almost of its own accord, and she’d ascended more than a thousand feet up before realizing she hadn’t gone to the market as planned. The image of Kyle and Dillon staring after her as David drove off flashed again, and she sighed. She owed them better than the awkward, vague farewell she’d offered at the ranger station. They had taken care of her during the storm, Kyle especially. He might not have been as warm and personable as Dillon, but he had given her clothing, food and water. He had held her while she slept. Both men had provided companionship at a time when she might otherwise have felt very lost and alone and afraid.
It was the more electric aspects of that companionship that she tried to banish thoughts of while she ducked inside the mouth of the cave. She tucked her water bottle under her arm and pulled out the flashlight she’d taken from her car upon parking near the ranger station. Flicking it on, she plunged into the dark and waved the beam in front of her to light the way back to where she’d spent the night with two of the most seductively virile men she’d ever met.
“Hello?” she said when she’d gone maybe halfway in, not wishing to startle anyone. “Kyle? Dillon?”
No answer or sound came from the back of the cave, which she came across soon after. The room was dark without the warm firelight of lanterns, and a sweep of her flashlight beam illuminated nothing more than the pile of chains lying in vacant space.
She frowned as she stood there, wondering what the hell to do now. Why she had assumed the men would be sitting around a damp cave awaiting her return was beyond her. Dillon had said that he didn’t live in the cave all the time, and that Kyle didn’t at all.
“Damn,” she said to nobody, and she headed out. What a waste of gas and time, making the drive up from the base of the mountains for nothing.
The song of jaybirds and a gentle breeze kept her company while she clomped back along the woods, but she was focused on neither. Instead, she pondered the heavy, disheartening sensation in her chest. Was she truly so disappointed over not getting to deliver another round of thanks to men she’d known for all of a few hours?
As her palm found the same flat rock to steady herself that she’d used that very morning, she had to admit that her reasons for driving straight back up the mountain were more complicated than obligation to express proper appreciation. She’d very much wanted to see them again. She’d hoped to glimpse Dillon’s you-know-you’re-mine smile, as irritating as it was, and Kyle’s rugged, yet somehow trust-invoking stare.
There was so much she’d learned about the cowboys but so much more that she wanted to know. How had Kyle gotten that scar? How long had they been werewolves, and how had it happened? Did they have jobs? Families? Hopes and dreams?
The steep incline rose before her, and she paused for a long drink from her sports bottle. A ray of light pierced the tree canopy, catching the facets of the diamond on her hand. Tiny, refractive rainbows scattered onto the rocks around her. She had no business here, satisfying her curiosity about men who had not put that ring onto her finger. She had no business satisfying anything right now, not while the question of whether she was truly intending to marry her employer was still a serious one. And it had to be. David had raised some solid, if not particularly romantic, points as to why a union between them was a sound proposition. Could life with an out-of-control shifter cowboy, seductive though he may be, offer her the security she had worked for since high school? Sure, plenty of people had tried to explain to her that there was more to life than money, and it wasn’t that she didn’t believe it. But nights spent indulging the erotic demands of a pair of smoking-hot males would hardly pay for her mother’s care unless she became the world’s first virgin hooker.
She snorted and swallowed another swig of water, wiping a drip from her chin before recapping the bottle. It was better that she hadn’t found them. She wasn’t thinking clearly. She was tired, and her legs and feet ached from yet another unscheduled mountain hike. There was no need to do anything except leave this place behind. Perhaps she could pull out memories of her cowboy wolves on particularly long, lonely nights when she sought the diversion of “what if” fantasies. But that would be it.
The climb up the slope was harder this time, with no strong men on hand to offer a hand. Her leg muscles burned from the effort, but at least she made it without falling and spoiling her dress, which was all white with big splashes of pink orchids. The coat didn’t fare quite as well, however. The white wool bore two distinct dirt smudges by the time she crested the hill and looked down over the ranger station once again.
She returned to her tiny gray coupe and gratefully kicked off her rubber boots in favor of low-heeled pumps before gripping the steering wheel to begin the drive back down to her apartment in Philips, the town nestled at the base of the mountain. Her body shook with fatigue, and her palms pulsed with the raw sting of pulling herself along dozens of rocks. The cell phone in her coat pocket buzzed with an incoming call, but she ignored it to focus on the winding, narrow turns. At the bottom of Shay Falls Outlook Drive, she turned onto the main highway road and passed by a tiny handful of shops, motels, and a gas station that comprised the mecca of downtown living in the falls.
A blue neon sign flashed unsuccessfully against the brilliant flare of afternoon sunlight, but it caught her attention nonetheless. The bar sign promised food and drink inside, and her stomach growled loudly the moment she spotted it. Lunch was long overdue, and getting some kind of fuel in her belly might help her make the drive back.
With a sigh, she pulled into the parking lot. Twisting her rearview mirror for a peek showed a reflection that could have been worse after her trek. Still, despite carefully applied makeup and the bounce of freshly washed curls, her pale, heavy-lidded expression made it clear that the past twenty-four hours had taken a toll.
She got out of the car and frowned down at her stained coat, then shrugged it off to toss it on the passenger’s seat. Her dress had no sleeves, just wide straps that melded into a deep sweetheart neckline. Still, the air was warm enough that losing the soiled coat wasn’t unduly cold, and the bar would be warmer still. The burger special advertised in the window would heat her up even more. A hot meal sounded divine right then.